Arne Öhman

Principal Investigator, Professor Emeritus

My career spans forty years of academic work. I defended my Ph. D. thesis at Uppsala University, Sweden, 1971. The academic year 1975-76 I spent in Peter Lang’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop my skills as a psychophysiologist. Returning from the US in 1976, I was offered a professorship in somatic psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway. I stayed in Bergen until 1982, when I returned to my “Alma Mater” Uppsala University as a professor of Clinical Psychology. In 1993 I replaced Marianne Frankenhaeuser as a professor of psychology at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, where I have been working until my retirement last summer. However, I continue my work at the Karolinska as a Professors Emeritus and a part time “Senior Scientist”.

I am a member of the Academia Europea, The Royal Swedish Academy of Science, a foreign member of the Finish Academy of Science and Letters, and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. 1997-2010 I was an elected member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet (which decides on the recipient(s) of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine).

I served as the President of the Society for Psychophysiological Research 1984-85, and I received this Society’s “Award for Outstanding Contribution to Psychophysiology” in 2001. In 2004 a received the honorary degree of “Doctor Philosophicus Honoris Causa” at the University of Bergen, Norway. 2000-2004 I served as Head of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska institutet.

Emotion, and particularly fear and fear conditioning, has been a central line in my research throughout my career. Collaborative work with my students in the seventies established that stimuli plausibly owing their fear-evoking power to evolutionary contingencies (e.g., pictures of snakes or angry faces) were associated more persistently with aversive stimuli than were neutral pictures. These initial findings were developed in subsequent research, which demonstrated that learning to fear snakes and angry human faces was independent of conscious recognition of the stimuli. Using brain-imaging techniques, we also demonstrated that such learning was related to the amygdala, the node in the brain’s fear network. More recently we have demonstrated that evolutionary fear-relevant stimuli (snakes, angry faces) guides attention more efficiently than neutral stimuli. Recent results suggest that snakes capture attention more effectively than another commonly feared animal, spiders, particularly when the stimulus display is visually demanding (many distractors, short stimulus durations, presentation in the peripheral visual field). Collectively these findings are in accordance with a recent evolutionary theory, Isbell’s “Snake Detection Theory”, which persuasively argues that snakes are the prototypical predator on mammals and, in particular, primates.